In Japan, when you choose something as your profession, you dedicate your life to perfecting it. Whether it be knife making, sumo wrestling or noodle making. To become Sushi Itamae (high chef) you first have to work for 5 years under a master before you can even prepare the sushi rice. You have to prepare the rice perfectly daily before you can be promoted to Wakita (near the cutting board) where you slice ginger, scallions etc. for a few more years before becoming a senior apprentice ( can cut anything) to a full blown Itamae. This process can take up to 20 years. The same is true of Japanese noodle making. Chefs take years learning how to prepare, and often specialize in one type of noodle ( ramen, soba, udon).
Although it is not seen in every restaurant, the chefs definitely take great pride in their products and take it personally if you do not enjoy your meal.
In Takayama, we went to a “Japanese Pub” where the sole bartender created cocktails with such flair that we ended up getting more and more cocktails just to see him work. He created drinks tailored to what we liked, concocting mixes that were highly unusual, but worked! Homemade flavourings like shitake mushroom and Japanese tree bark, Japanese plum, and fresh ginger were some of his ingredients, combined with local sake (rice wine) and whiskey.
One of our staples on this trip has been ramen. A cheap, filling, and delicious bowl of noodles in a broth of your choice ( miso, soy sauce, pork) with slices of pork and onions and bamboo shoots topped with an egg and some seaweed. Think Mr. Noodles on steroids.
Udon is a thick white noodle that can be served on it’s own, or in a soup like dish similar to ramen.
Sushi is, of course, a must try in Japan. There are fresh fish markets open daily in every major city. The prices for sushi can vary dramatically, depending on the type of fish, what part of the body it’s from, and how fatty it is ( that fattier, the better). We went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, where the chefs are in the middle, and the customers sit in a big circle around them. 1 or 2 slices of sushi are put on a plate and then put on the belt. If you see something you like then you grab it when it comes your way and at the end of the meal all of your plates are counted up to tabulate your bill. Most of the local people there had about 5 plates each. Mark and I ate 20.
Bento Boxes are “train food”, and are sold in many train or bus stops for you to eat in transit. Filled with various substances and eaten cold, they are very bright, colourful, and pretty disgusting (the exotic ones).
Okonnmiyaki is a Japanese pancake filled with cabbage and whatever else your heart (or the old lady cooking it) desires. Typically filled with onions, mushrooms, cabbage and some sort of meat or seafood, it’s pan fried, covered in a sweet brown BBQ like sauce and served on it’s own little stove top. You eat the food from the stove top and this way it stays warm as you chat away the evening.
Tempura is veggies, seafood or meat dunked in a light batter and then deep fried. The light and flaky batter melts in your mouth, or when served in a soup flakes off and flavours the soup.
Gyoza are dumplings originally from China, but have become very popular across Japan. They are filled with beef, pork or vegetables and then boiled and pan fried.
Tonkatsu is a Japanese breaded pork cutlet, deep fried and served with rice and usually some sort of curry like sauce and cabbage. It’s very tasty, and kind of tastes like a big chicken nugget.
Yakatori is grilled meat on skewers, typically made up of different parts of a chicken. We unaware of this when we decided to try a Yakatori restaurant. We chose some items based off of the menu’s pictures. Being starving after a long day of walking, we were ready to devour it when the items came. It came and it looked delicious. One bite in…. chicken liver! Blast it all! Okay, so we won’t eat that. The next round came – more chicken livers but in a different sauce! Then came the chicken skin and shortly after, the chicken butts. And then more butts, and more butts. There was a glitch in their system that made them keep bringing us chicken butts! Mark liked these (blissfully unaware of what they were). With plates piled high and Mark looking plump and greasy, an American at our neighboring table chimed in. He had heard us discussing our liver predicament and made some recommendations for what to choose to get actual meat.
Tea is a big part of Japanese culture and they especially love Green tea. The green tea flavouring can be found in many foods, including ice cream! When walking in a garden in Kanazawa, it started to pour rain and we escaped by going into a tea house for some traditional tea. The green tea was thicker than we expected and tasted a little bit like grass. It was served with Mochi, a sweet rice that’s pounded into a ball and filled with red bean paste. It tastes sort of like uncooked dough, but somehow it works with the grass juice.
All in all, Japan has some very interesting tastes, and for sure has some of the best chefs in the world in their classes. We’ve ticked some items off our food bucket list and are now ready to hit up the flavours of the next country- but we will probably get one more bowl of ramen before we go.